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Cuomo campaigns against Trump while ignoring Nixon, Molinaro

You might think Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is running against President Trump this election year.

In news releases, public statements, tweets and speeches, Cuomo appears laser-focused on Washington as he launches his bid for a third term. He weighs in on a host of national issues like immigration, tax policy and abortion rights in a relentless campaign against the president, while virtually ignoring those challenging him in New York.

Cynthia Nixon – his Democratic primary opponent? Hardly a mention.

Ditto for Marc Molinaro, the Republican candidate for governor.

In one three-day stretch last week, 13 of his 14 campaign tweets skewered the president. The lone exception was a shoutout to his mother – Matilda Cuomo – after she visited a community gathering in Queens.

It all leads some observers to speculate that Cuomo is warming up for another election – the 2020 presidential contest – auditioning his best lines before friendly audiences this year for the big production yet to come.

“He’s setting himself up to run for president,” said Michael R. Caputo, the East Aurora political consultant who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “He’s trotting out these messages to see how they work.”

Known for political savvy throughout his career, Cuomo is betting that ramping up anti-Trump rhetoric works to his advantage.

Recent examples include:

• Aug. 1: Cuomo calls on the state Board of Elections to regulate the transparency of online political ads following revelations of election meddling on Facebook. He squarely blames Trump.

“While the Trump administration turns a blind eye to meddling in our elections,” Cuomo said, “New York is leading the way to protect our democracy.”

• July 31: Cuomo blasts the administration for lifting the ban on 3D printers capable of creating untraceable plastic guns.

“It is absurd and frightening that the federal government wants to make accessing an automatic weapon as easy as hitting 'print,'” he said.

“New York is proud to have the strongest gun safety laws in the nation, and we won’t let this federal government take us backwards.”

July 31: Cuomo resurrects criticism of Trump tax policy that prevents New Yorkers from deducting their state and local taxes.

“Trump already hurt the middle class with his tax scam and now he is doubling down,” he said. “Tell me again how this is good for the most Americans.”

• July 28: Cuomo appears on CNN to criticize administration policies that separate families of migrants attempting to enter the United States.

“The president said I want a wall at the border,” Cuomo said. “When he didn’t get the wall, he said fine, I’ll set up a gauntlet, and I’ll put a message to people, if you come into this country, you’re going to be subjected to all sorts of inhumane treatment.”

July 27: Cuomo reacts to reports of sexual abuse of a separated immigrant child.

“The president should be ashamed,” the governor said. “It’s far past time this administration reunite every single separated child with their family and bring an end once and for all this great stain on our nation’s history. This is not who we are.”

July 26: Cuomo joins Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood in suing to block the Trump administration’s efforts to “sabotage” the Affordable Care Act.

“The Trump administration is once again waging an assault against the fundamental rights of Americans to have access to safe, high quality, affordable health care,” he said.

July 24: The governor – during his fifth visit to Puerto Rico since it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria – challenges Trump to visit the island while lambasting the federal government’s emergency response.

“The president applauded FEMA, applauded the recovery effort,” he said. “We now know that was all baloney, as we would say in New York. We’d actually say something different in New York, but we’ll leave it at baloney for now.”

Cuomo’s anti-Trump stand appears to recognize the realities of New York politics. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2.6 million voters. Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly defeated Trump in New York in 2016. And polls show Trump as increasingly unpopular in his own home state.

Jeremy J. Zellner, the Erie County Democratic chairman, pronounces the governor’s efforts “a good statewide strategy.” He acknowledged substantial numbers of Erie County voters backed Trump, but may now be agreeing with the governor's comments and strategy.

“He made all kinds of promises he didn’t keep," Zellner said of Trump, "and the people who may have crossed party lines to vote for him now have buyer’s remorse.”

While Clinton carried Erie County by about five percentage points in 2016, Trump fared relatively well outside the City of Buffalo and its concentration of Democrats. And Trump won much of upstate too, prompting the governor’s critics to note that he rarely delves into his anti-administration rhetoric north of New York City.

In fact, Cuomo did not mention Trump during remarks last week in Jamestown and Rochester. Some analysts note that while competing in the Democratic gubernatorial primary against actress-activist Cynthia Nixon, he concentrates his Trump attacks in New York City and its heavy concentration of Democrats.

“I think it’s effective downstate and hurts him upstate, and the governor’s model has always relied on downstate overwhelming the upstate vote,” Caputo said. “He talks of Trump more because of Cynthia Nixon than Marc Molinaro.”

Molinaro, meanwhile, concentrates more on state issues than Trump and national affairs. He rarely mentions the president, and has acknowledged he did not vote for him in 2016.

Zellner said he is convinced Cuomo is focused only on winning re-election this year and is not looking ahead to 2020. But he acknowledged he is intrigued by the notion.

“Could be,” he said. “Everybody believes he would like to run for president.”

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